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The Maine questions are plentiful

by Bob Snow /
There aren't many colder locales in the NCAA hockey landscape than Orono, Maine, home of the University of Maine Black Bears, where the late Shawn Walsh began building one of college hockey's most successful programs in 1984. 

Tim Whitehead's leadership behind the bench since Walsh's passing after a courageous battle with kidney cancer in 2001 has continued to keep Maine atop the postseason ledger board: 17 NCAA appearances since 1987, 11 Frozen Fours since '88 and 4 of the past 7, and 2 national championships.

"Every year is unique," said Whitehead as the current season began, "whether you're coming off a down year or an unexpected good one."

The 2007-08 season would be classified as the former in the state where Black Bear hockey is the sport, and success is expected every season.

A 13-18-3 record -- the fewest wins since 1985-86 -- brought a ninth-place league finish and a blank slate of postseason appearances for the first time in program history, except for a 1997 blackout imposed by the NCAA for recruiting violations.

The preseason poll pegged Maine at the same No. 9 slot in Hockey East, generating questions of a different type off last season's premature close before the vernal equinox: Who replaces Ben Bishop after turning pro with St. Louis, ending three dominating seasons in goal? How do the Black Bears generate more offense? Who provides the leadership on this year's team? What's the overall plan for a successful rebound? Is Whitehead concerned about job security?

"Our defense is our strongest piece with Simon Danis-Pepin and Matt Duffy back," said Whitehead about the team's main rebuilding block, and before getting to the meat of those Black Bear questions. "Two freshmen, Brian Hegarty and Will O'Neill are both coming in very prepared to help right away.

The goaltending question, coach?

"Once we realized that Bishop would sign, that gave us an opportunity to identify top priorities," said Whitehead about the 6-foot-7 Bishop, who was immense with a goals-against average of 2.43. "No. 1 was goaltending. Our objective is to give (junior) David Wilson and (freshman) Scott Darling an opportunity to help our team in goal. They both will. Neither is a slam-dunk for No. 1, but both have that potential. It's important for us to be patient with both. They're in a tough situation with Bishop gone. They'll rise up and perform well. Wilson's in the best shape of his career. And Darling will go toe-to-toe with him."

The offense question?

"Last year was a very challenging year for our offense," Whitehead said, "and injuries played a big part making it even more challenging losing some of our very best forwards in particular. Goals are going to be tough to come by. We're going to have to win a lot of 1-goal, low-scoring games to be successful.

"Chris Hahn was held back by 2 injuries last year, so people have not seen him at his best. He'll surprise quite a few. And Jeff Marshall emerged as a very steady player and earned the other captain spot. They'll be typical of how we need to improve up front."

Hahn and Marshall, along with sophomore Tanner House, led the 2 Black Bear wins last weekend against Niagara to put the Black Bears at .500 with a 3-3 record entering November.

Last November's deep freeze had Maine winless the entire month. The next 8 games will be against league rivals; defending national champion Boston College comes to Maine on Sunday to begin the key early-season stretch. 

So what about Whitehead's job security?

"Fortunately," said Whitehead, "I'm on a long-term contract with a lot of stability in the program. The most pressure to win this year will come from myself. Our staff is here to stay and we're just going to get there as quick as we can.

"I don't enjoy losing hockey games. It's not easy."

No shortage of that sentiment across the great state of Maine. 

On Campus Clips -- Air Force is the only unbeaten and untied team in the country at 8-0-0. The Falcons also boast the nation's 2 leading scorers in Jacques Lamoureux (11-8-19) and Brent Olson (3-14-17); Lamoureux's 11 goals are also tops in D-1 along with his 7 power-play tallies. Olson's 14 assists top that scoring category. ... The Notre Dame Fighting Irish come to Boston College's Conte Forum for a rematch of last April's national championship game in Denver won by the Eagles, 4-2. ... Wisconsin registered its first win of the season with a 5-2 road victory against North Dakota. ... The NHL Network continues college hockey broadcasts this season with a one-year extension agreement in the CCHA, WCHA, and ECACHL. The schedule for NHL Network includes a "Game of the Week" Fridays during the regular season, and the ECACHL Tournament semifinal and final games.

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